Skip to main content
Ages 13+
Under 13

Aphantasia: When the Mind’s Eye Is Blind


The recently discovered condition of aphantasia is the incapacity to form visual images. This is what implies not being able to imagine, in contrast with Blake’s tiger and 13 ways of imagining a blackbird.

We take hundreds of things for granted as part of the ‘human package’ with which we are born, but there is one specific thing that we need to revaluate: the mind’s eye, more commonly understood as ‘visual imagination.’ The emphasis on revaluating this capacity comes from a recent study in which it was confirmed that there exists a congenital condition called aphantasia in which that ‘mind’s eye’ is blind; meaning that the brain for some people (one in 50) is incapable of forming images.

The mere existence of the ‘mind’s eye’ has been recently confirmed by neuroscience. It is something that, in literature and philosophy, has been one more fact that is more than assumed for the understanding of ideas and concepts, but for neuroscience there was never a way of measuring it and therefore proving its existence. Now it has been revealed as a fact that there are people who simply cannot process visual information (a poem, a literary description or a conversation with graphical references). Those who suffer from aphantasia (and few of them actually know it) have great difficulty in describing their imagination or how to process visual information. For them, the most common experiences such as reading are experienced in a completely different way. A man with aphantasia reported not being able to “count sheep to get to sleep” for example, or recognize family faces. Can we imagine what it would be like to read Borges or Bradbury without being able to visualize their descriptions, or read poems whose verbal images are treated like paintings (“As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean”).

It is no surprise that it was Shakespeare who coined the phrase ‘the mind’s eye’ in Hamlet, one of the works that most require (both from the character and the reader) a capacity to visualize the events and their ghosts. “We call the moon the moon,” said John Donne, but now it turns out that there are those who call it thus without being able to see it by just closing their eyes. It would appear that aphantasia sharpens the memory of facts, and which serves as a solace to those who suffer from it. What we do not know is what those who don’t see with their mind’s eye dream about, what science fiction they read, and what they hear in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

As so often happens, finding out what one has and that another lacks it brings gratitude and perspective. The mind’s eye has brought us so many happy moments – as well as terrible ones, why not admit it – that it would not be excessive to over estimate it. Here is a poem by William Blake (who perhaps reimagined the imagination) and 13 ways of looking at a blackbird with the mind’s eye.


The Tyger

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,

In the forests of the night;

What immortal hand or eye,

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.

Burnt the fire of thine eyes?

On what wings dare he aspire?

What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,

Could twist the sinews of thy heart?

And when thy heart began to beat,

What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,

In what furnace was thy brain?

What the anvil? what dread grasp,

Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears

And water’d heaven with their tears:

Did he smile his work to see?

Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,

In the forests of the night:

What immortal hand or eye,

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?


Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird


Among twenty snowy mountains,

The only moving thing

Was the eye of the blackbird.


I was of three minds,

Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds.


The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.

It was a small part of the pantomime.


A man and a woman

Are one.

A man and a woman and a blackbird

Are one.


I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections

Or the beauty of innuendoes,

The blackbird whistling

Or just after.


Icicles filled the long window

With barbaric glass.

The shadow of the blackbird

Crossed it, to and fro.

The mood

Traced in the shadow

An indecipherable cause.


O thin men of Haddam,

Why do you imagine golden birds?

Do you not see how the blackbird

Walks around the feet

Of the women about you?


I know noble accents

And lucid, inescapable rhythms;

But I know, too,

That the blackbird is involved

In what I know.


When the blackbird flew out of sight,

It marked the edge

Of one of many circles.


At the sight of blackbirds

Flying in a green light,

Even the bawds of euphony

Would cry out sharply.


He rode over Connecticut

In a glass coach.

Once, a fear pierced him,

In that he mistook

The shadow of his equipage

For blackbirds.


The river is moving.

The blackbird must be flying.


It was evening all afternoon.

It was snowing

And it was going to snow.

The blackbird sat

In the cedar-limbs.

Related Articles